Oaxaca, Mexico:
An Expatriate Life

Writing by Stan Gotlieb
Photos by Diana Ricci

THE OAXACA / MEXICO NEWSLETTER
Volume 15, No. 3: March 25, 2010

[ We'll be away from home for a couple of months. This Newsletter is about things we will miss when we are gone. For one thing, we will miss our "office" at the Primavera, where we can be found many days around 1:00 when we're in town. ]

We are pretty much creatures of habit. We tend to follow our (sometimes individually different) patterns through the days and the weeks of our time here in Paradise. Diana sleeps later than I do; I tend to go to bed earlier. I get up, get on the computer, and catch up on the news, both here and in the U.S. While I am doing that, Diana gets up and goes outside to sweep the bougainvilla flowers off the walk in front of our door. We get some terrific gusts of wind, and the flowers have but a tentative purchase on the branches.

Breakfast gets made and eaten, and by mid morning, most days, we are ready to go out and take care of what little business we have.

[We live behind the tree. Our patio is in the back, through the archway. We don't bother with curtains on our front windows: our neighbors mind their own business, and we are not exposed to the street.]

Living as we do in the center of town, we have no super-markets nearby, and that's the way we like it. One of the fun activities for long-termers like us is finding out which of the hundreds of small tiendas (stores) within walking distance of our house has what product for sale (we don't own a car, and we walk for exercise). We do have a pretty large mini-super across the street for stuff like soap and toilet paper, and we even bought a washing machine and a stove there, but they have no produce, and a limited selection of cooler items.

Actually, the store has an interesting story. It's owned by and for the workers in the Mexican Institute for Social Service, and offers discounts to them, as well as cashing scrip issued in lieu of cash. It's a sort of "company store" except the workers run it. It's open to the public, and sells wine and sour cream as well as dry goods and appliances. It doesn't make a profit and it performs a terrific service.

[That's a big, heavy front door, designed to swing from a pivot rather than a hinge.]

Mostly, we buy our produce at the Merced market, a covered collection of buildings filled with booths, about four blocks from home. We get our meat there, too. We can buy individual garbage bags there as we need them (we try to recycle the bags that merchants put our stuff in, but sometimes we run out). There is a bakery section of not much distinction, and a food court where we occasionally stop before shopping for a plate of huevos rancheros and a large freshly squeezed orange juice. As well, there are booths that sell dairy products, desserts, and other miscellaneous stuff. On Sundays, the area around the market building fills up with more vendors, and the whole place hums with the increased business. By the way, watch for a "photo album" from La Merced sometime this summer...

For specialty items and organic stuff, there are two different "Pochote" outdoor organic markets (neither at Pochote: one in the church forecourt in Xochimilco on Fridays and Saturdays; the other down on Colón street every day of the week), several tiendas naturalistas (health food stores), and Pan y Co, a "european style" bakery with lots of specialty breads and sweet rolls; and on rare occasions we patronize the big Soriana (K-Mart like) superstore for things that are simply unavailable elsewhere, like herring in cream sauce for instance.

A lot of folks shop the local Sam's Club, but we stay as much as we can with local businesses. Then, too, Sam's is a long ways away and there are very few things we can get there that we can't get closer to home.

Which brings us to our house. It's in a compound, with a gate and two locks. The residents are a mixed lot. Our upstairs neighbor is a retired painter from Illinois. There is an entrepreneur Mexican couple, Jaime and Conchita, who are the parents of now-two-years-old Luz Daniela. They have a few stalls in the Mercado de Artesanias, and he travels to fairs and fiestas, sometimes for weeks at a time.

[The bedrooms and the bathroom are in the back. The archway is an architectural embellishment.]

Across from them is a middle-aged Oaxaqueña charismatic Catholic lady named Frances who supervises a staff of women that sell Herbal Life, or something like that. Above her is a couple (he Canadian, she Mexican) with a son in Medical School who teach at the language school of the state university. The front of the building has locales (stores) - without tenants at the moment - downstairs, and two or three short-rental units that often have students or folks on temporary assignment in residence.upstairs. All in all, a pleasant bunch.

The duplex building we live in was built, we believe, in the 1950s. Lots of re-bar in this cement edifice should help mitigate earthquake damage: we are after all, on the volatile and sometimes violent San Andres Fault.

We're in the back, in a location that despite all the street noise remains quiet and peaceful. It was vacant for almost a year before we took it, because the landlady (as well as the neighbors) was slightly traumatized by the previous tenant, and waiting for the "right one" to come along.

After the depredations of the previous tenant, and a long time without maintenance - things seem to deteriorate more quickly here than the do in California, when neglected - there was a lot of work to be done to make the place habitable. The landlady (unheard of in my experience) volunteered to tear out the termite-infested door frames and all the bathroom fixtures, and replace them for us. All the floors were cleaned up, the entire apartment was painted, all defective light fixtures replaced: unbelievable!

Before we moved in, I had more electric outlets put in, and the computer plugs grounded; and screens and screen doors installed. After we took up residence, Diana had cabinets and shelves made for the kitchen and I had shelving put into the closet space in our office (third bedroom) for storange, and things started settling down.

We have three bedrooms, each with full closet; a small service patio off our bedroom with a small patch of dirt. Diana's collection of art and artesania (I've a few pieces) has expanded to enrich the walls, niches, and shelves. Our livingroom furniture is of standard "rustico" design, altered by the carpentero to fit our specifications: thicker cushions, more depth to the seats, more length on the couch for stretching out and napping.

Our patio gets a lot of use when the weather is right, as it is most of the year. We once had over 30 folks seated (tables and chairs are really cheap to rent; you can also rent dishes, glasses, whatever you like, and they arrive clean and you can return them dirty) to a sit-down buffet dinner - it was our housewarming. Most of the time we try to limit gatherings to eight - the number of people who can squeeze around our biggest table; but we notice we're having fewer lately: 4 to 6 seems about right these days...

[As well as having shelves and cabinets made, we also took the sliding doors off the lower cabinet. The orange tray says "More hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion".]

We're eating out more than we used to, and fortunately there are always new Comedores Economicos (Inexpensive Kitchens) opening up. The latest is just on the corner, about four doors away. They produce a comida corrida (fixed price meal) of spagghetti or rice, an entree, a desert, tortillas and agua (prepared drinks of water and fruit juice) for 35 pesos; and the food is good, too.

Now that all the movie theaters in the city center have closed (and become either parking lots or evangelical churches) and the cineplexes (two) opened in the suburbs, we don't go out to the movies as often, preferring to watch dvd's at home; and while the English Language Library is still there, and we are life members, we don't use it as much. Instead we trade books back and forth with friends. We don't have cable or satellite for our tv.

When we moved here (16 years ago for me; twenty for Diana) there were few big supermarkets, no Sam's, no cineplexes, etc. It took the completion of the super-carretera (toll road freeway) connecting Oaxaca to Mexico City in 1996 to get the ball really rolling, and there is no doubt that the culture is changing with the influx of Chilangos (residents of Mexico City). Stilll, it is possible to enjoy the Oaxaca that we moved here to live in.

[Shooting into the outside light is always a bit tricky. As you can see, there is a good sized gap between us and the neighbor in front, with room enough to do some planting.]

NOTES:

** An important and cogent analysis of the "war against drugs" in Mexico can be found at http://www.counterpunch.org/whitney03222010.html.

** There was a bill introduced in the Congress of Mexico to delay the registration of cellphones for two years (see last Newsletter). I don't know whether it got anywhere yet, but the reason given was that only 48% of cell-phone owners had complied. While couched in language of "people need more time" (the registration program is about two years old now), the real meaning (in the mind of a cynic such as myself) is that TELMEX, and it's TELCEL subdivision - owned by Carlos Slim, the world's richest man - would suffer enormous revenue losses if all those unregistered phones were cut off at the end of this month. Vamos á ver...

** Todedo's string of cultural institutions has just undergone yet another shuffle. Another building has been added on Juarez between Matamoros and Murguia, and it apparently will house some parts of the Alvarez Bravo photo museum, and some parts of the IAGO art library. Best advice at the moment: go to where you expect what you are looking for to be, and be redirected if necessary. If you have no expectations, visit the Juarez street building anyway and see for yourself...

[Our garden, arrayed along the back wall of our patio, is all cactuses and succulents. We chose them because they are most likely to survive our sometimes lengthy absences. No flowers, no pets...]

** According to the New York Times, Americans living abroad will be explicitly exempted from the penalty for not buying health insurance under the newly passed legislation. However, some of them will pay higher taxes under some provisions, a tax that will only apply to persons in the highest tax brackets.

** Housekeeping: as you can see, I have reverted to the old format for this edition. Still working on the changes... Comments have been generally positive but folks are more reluctant to criticize than to praise, so without your feedback it's hard to tell whether there are some serious flaws. If you see them, let us know. Please.